Festival’s lotus position awkward

Times Staff Writer

It’s not the Lotus Festival that’s gone missing this weekend.

The dragon boats are still speeding across Echo Park Lake, the drums are beating and the scent of chicken satay and papaya salad wafts through the crowds.

It’s the lotuses that are gone, dead after gracing the lake with their broad leaves and delicate flowers for decades.

Visitors stood solemnly Saturday, alone and in small groups, gazing at the empty water as if paying their respects at a gravesite.

Mysteriously, the lotuses failed to bloom this summer for the first time in the 31-year history of the Echo Park Lotus Festival. What was once called the nation’s largest lotus display has simply vanished.


And though the three-day festival opened as planned Friday to honor Los Angeles’ Asian heritage, dozens of residents complained Saturday that something felt awry.

Over and over, they sounded the same lament.

Where are the lotuses?

“I want to see the flowers,” begged Esther Barrientos, 6, of Echo Park. Her mother had promised her a field of lotuses, all pink and cream and elegant in a sea of giant green leaves. What she got was a pond of dirty water.

Cary Levine, 35, of Los Angeles brought his girlfriend to the park, eager to show her the blooms. He had paused just north of the lake’s edge. “There’s no lotuses,” he said.

His girlfriend, Jessica Rosenblum, 32, of Long Beach gave him a sympathetic hug. “Oh, honey,” she said.

Jesse Diaz, 12, thought he saw a flower shoot in the turgid water, only to recognize it as a small green plastic clip of the sort used to fasten bread bags. He lives near Echo Park, and he came expecting flowers.

“It looks really lame and plain. This time, it’s not fun,” he said.

For six years, Linh Duong, public affairs director of the Chinese American Museum in L.A., has enjoyed a ringside view of the blooms from the museum’s booth at the north end of the lotus beds. Now, she is the first person whom disappointed visitors turn to.

“People are very bewildered, and they don’t understand why the lotuses aren’t here,” said Duong, 30, who grew up in Chinatown and used to run around the blooming beds as a high school student.

She finds their absence disconcerting. “It gives you a sense of the passing of time and how things change,” she said. “It’s very sad. It’s heartbreaking.”

Leo Pandac, chairman of the Lotus Festival Advisory Board, stood with others along the shore, scanning the lake surface as if expecting to find a lotus leaf. He was a bit philosophical about the passing of the lotuses, calling it a symbol of life’s fragility. “Some things we take for granted might not last,” he said.

The lotuses have long been the centerpiece of the urban park. They’re believed to be related to the lotuses brought from China in the 1920s by Aimee Semple McPherson, who founded the Angelus Temple across the street. Old photos of Echo Park show a virtual jungle of lotus plants from the 1920s through the end of the 20th century and into the 21st.

Then, three years ago, the lotuses began to falter. Only an estimated 30 flowers bloomed last year. A handful of green leaves sprouted this spring -- only to turn yellow, shrivel and disappear. Not a single leaf remained Saturday.

A consultant’s report released last month listed 13 possible causes for the lotuses’ disappearance, including temperature extremes, poor water quality, pests, disease and a 20-year delay in refurbishing the beds.

The city’s Department of Recreation and Parks already was planning a $60-million renovation of the park, including draining and refilling the lake. Officials have vowed to find the cause of the die-off and plant new lotuses.

Canceling the festival was never considered, city officials said. It is not simply a celebration of flowers, they say, but of the entire Asian and Pacific Islander communities in Southern California.

Dozens of familiar white tents line the lake’s shore through today, featuring miniature cactuses, Asian artifacts and colorful flower-adorned parasols.

Saturday crowds were estimated at 25,000 to 30,000 by 4 p.m. Saturday, said parks spokeswoman Jane Kolb. In recent years, the festival has drawn as many as 150,000 people over three days.

Some observers believe the loss of the lotuses changed the tone of the weekend.

“The festival feels sort of bewildered. Lost. Without direction,” said television producer Marcus Fox, who left with a friend after half an hour.

Kimberly Ferries, 34, of Glendale, who is of Chinese descent, brought her son Kierin, 6, to the park Saturday.

“I really would have liked him to see a lotus, what it looked like,” she said. “Now, I’m going to have to pull it up on the Internet. ‘This is what you would have seen.’ ”